Dolphins and Porpoises

Unless you’re a marine biologist or work at an aquarium, you probably can’t tell the difference between a dolphin and a porpoise. I recently had to look up their distinguishing characteristics – which include their relative numbers of species, their length, and the shape of their teeth – on the informative

But almost all of us know there is a difference between a dolphin and a porpoise, that these aquatic mammals are similar but not the same, and that their two names are not interchangeable.

For many of us, mission and purpose resemble dolphin and porpoise. We know they’re different, but we may not know how they differ. To help make this distinction clear, I thought we’d take a trip to See World, the place I go when I want to learn more about something important, something I know will have an impact on the way I think and act.

In See World, I dive beneath the surface of words to understand their meaning more deeply. Instead of snorkeling over dictionary definitions, I don my scuba gear and descend into etymology, the study of the origin of words, with the help of the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Mission dates back to the 1590s, from the Latin missionem, the act of sending. This act of sending occurs when we mail a missive, launch a missile, dispatch a missionary to a post, or send an envoy or group on a diplomatic or humanitarian mission. Mission involves action and doing. Beyond a concept, fulfilling your mission means doing the work.

Purpose predates mission, originating in the late 13th century, from the French root porpos, aim or intention, which in turn derives from the Latin pro (forth) and the French poser (to put), as in to propose an idea. We see aim and intention in proposals we submit, poses we strike, propositions we vote on, and the pros and cons we consider before making a decision. Purpose involves vision and thinking. It is conceptual, and realizing your purpose means knowing why you do the work you do.

Just as purpose predates mission on the timeline of etymology, intention must precede action on the timeline of your life if you are to design and live the best life you want for yourself.

For action without intention not only leads you into trouble but also lacks the power to take you where you want to be.

And action with intention not only keeps you out of trouble but also has the power to take you wherever you want to go.

Understanding the difference between dolphins and porpoises might make you better at helping your kids with their homework or help you win a few bucks on a quiz show.

Understanding the difference between mission and purpose constitutes practical and critical knowledge that can help you when you’re:

  • Writing a mission statement for yourself or the organization where you work
    The mission statement explains what you do, such as counsel troubled adolescents, provide strategies to increase efficiency, or offer customers the widest choice of high-end audio components, and it must be aligned with your purpose – to keep adolescents out of crisis, to help companies achieve greater profitability, or to enhance the listening experience.
  • Reinventing yourself in a career transition
    Turning off one set of daily activities and turning on another will not bring you greater fulfillment unless you know why you want to flip the switch.
  • Realizing where you went wrong in a personal or professional relationship
    Nearly all of the time, when something doesn’t work out, it’s not because we didn’t put in the work but because we worked at it for the wrong reasons.
  • Making decisions about how to allocate your time
    Asking yourself whether a particular action, such as volunteering, taking a class, reorganizing your entire house or apartment, or joining a networking group, serves your purpose is the best way to determine whether to do it or not.
  • Evaluating the wisdom and potential of an idea
    Sometimes you have a great idea that you’re eager to act on but is not aligned with your purpose. These ideas may still be meant to be developed and realized – by someone else.
  • Responding when someone challenges your actions or criticizes your lack of accomplishment
    You can say, I’m on my way. I may not have taken a step today or as many steps as I’d like, but I know where I’m going and why. 

    I hope you’ve enjoyed this visit to See World as much as I have. Others may confuse purpose and mission, but not you. You now know they are as different as … well, a dolphin and a porpoise.

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Leave A Reply (8 comments So Far)

  • Katrina

    I love etymonline!  I can quite happily spent hours there,
    trawling for connections between dolphins and the eldest son of the King of
    France.  My purpose is purely to gather
    the meanings of things J 



    Today your post reminded me that my mission is
    to become a Poetry Therapist.  The work I
    am doing involves working with recovering addicts.  I structure classes, that help them arrange
    their thoughts and express them in their own words.  It is highly rewarding for me and I learn a
    lot about different perspectives on life.


    It also reminded me of an enchanted afternoon on
    the coast of the Isle of Skye.  As I sat, scanning the horizon from beneath a
    much-needed sunhat, the seascape was invaded by a pair of porpoises:




    Porpoises propel arches in the air

    With the power of Poseidon inside.

    Cutting through sky-scapes the rainbow they share

    With the wisdom of their guts as their guide


    Warmed by the sun in their movements of grace

    They are waking their wings as they play

    No false expressions to cover their face

    They’re creating the dance of the day.


    Humid beings with spirits of delight

    And the lightness that lasts the day’s length

    Puncturing bias, their breast-stroke takes flight

    With love from above spreading strength.


    These were not
    dolphins by any stretch of the imagination. 
    A porpoise has a different kind of grace and a more determined movement.  The purpose, no doubt.


    Can poetry
    cure?  Is this really anything more than
    a diversion from the craving to uphold the addiction?  In my experience, recovering addicts have
    been through a range of strange behaviours, demonstrating the desperation caused
    by unfulfilled aspects of their lives. 
    The thing that really jumps out at me is the void.


    Obsession and lack
    are not something words can fill; but by regularly attending my sessions, these
    people are opening themselves to different views on life.  I’m not a missionary (!), but wish I could
    transport them all to Skye for an hour or so. 
    Peer pressure from the porpoises would do them the power of good . . . 

    • Thank you for sharing your story and your beautiful poem here. Poetry therapy is hugely valuable, and the people you work with surely need and benefit your help. Best of luck to you on your journey!

  • Tom-
    I too am a graduate of the UIC grad school (MA in communication). Like you, I’m an etymology lover and often find myself digging deeply when I want to understand the meaning of a word. Thank you for saving me the trouble with purpose and mission.  Now I get it 🙂

    • Felicia,
      I didn’t know we had UIC in common! Digging down to the roots of words reveals so much, and it’s fun, too. I’m glad you found this enjoyable and informative.

  • Great article Tom. Thank you especially for reminding us that understanding mission and purpose are not a “one time” exercises in life or in work. (And knowing the difference between the two makes them POWERFUL.) 

    • Thanks, Dondi!

      And yes, it’s a continuous process of aligning mission with purpose.

  • What an engaging trip to SEE World 🙂 Clever and empowering.

    Thanks for taking us from interesting etymology (akin to theory) to giving us practical applications of how understanding the difference between our mission and purpose can help us in business and life.

    Hard to pick a favorite nugget of wisdom, but here it is:
    “Sometimes you have a great idea that you’re eager to act on but is not aligned with your purpose. These ideas may still be meant to be developed and realized – by someone else.”

    Powerful advice for creative entrepreneurs struggling with a lack of focus and too many starts – not enough finishes.

    • Mollie, Thanks for your comments!

      It was fun to dive in to the etymology and surface with some wisdom than can help people as they start their businesses and other creative endeavors.